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What is Family Counseling?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Family counseling is a type of psychotherapy that may have one or more objectives. It may help to promote better relationships and understanding within a family. It may be incident specific, as for example during a divorce, or the approaching death of a family member. Alternately, it may address the needs of the family when one family member suffers from a mental or physical illness that alters his or her behavior or habits in negative ways.

Counseling for families often occurs with all members of the family unit present. This may not always be the case. A family member who suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction might not attend sessions, and might actually be the reason why other family members seek out counseling.

Part of the goal of the therapist is to observe interactions between family members. Another part is to observe the perception of non-interacting family members. Thus if two family members get into an argument in a session, the therapist might want to know how the other family members are dealing with the disagreement or the way in which the two fighting members comport themselves.

In addition to observation, the therapist often helps the family reflect on better ways of communicating with each other. So family counseling may in part be instruction and encouragement. In fact, it often teaches family members new and more positive ways to communicate to replace old, negative communication patterns.

Observations may also be used to point out how poor communication, especially when particularly filled with strife, affects the behavior and happiness of children. Children benefit from the safe forum of a session. They may get to for discuss the things they don’t like about behavior of caregivers and/or siblings. Such discussion might not be permitted in the home setting.

As in group counseling, the therapist also acts as moderator in family counseling. He or she attempts to ensure that each family member gets fair time for expressing concerns and contributing to the conversation as to how the family can do better. Sometimes the therapist may identify one or more family members who need more than the counseling model, and might benefit from individual therapy. The personal issues of one member of a family may affect all other family members.

The therapist may identify that the family cannot progress to a better relationship format without some individuals receiving more help, and possibly medication. A family member with a bipolar chemistry may want to be a better parent, but may be physically unable to change radical mood swings without a combination of individual therapy and medication.

Family counseling may not take a long time to complete. Often families benefit from four to five sessions. Sometimes families require more help and might need 20-30 sessions to resolve significant or ongoing family issues.

For families, therapy often helps because it involves a disinterested third party who does not favor any one member of the family. This is generally why a therapist for one family member will not agree to be a counselor for the client’s family. Display of partiality can render the counseling ineffective.

Different theoretical models exist in family counseling. A therapist may work from a behavioral stance, from Gestalt principals, or from a combination of therapeutic approaches. Whatever the approach, the main goal continues to be to improve the relationship of each family member to the others, so that the family progresses as a harmonious unit.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon177148 — On May 17, 2011

My family has had a history of sexual molestation and abuse for over 20 years. It is a big problem and has ruined our relationship as a family. We have all moved on and have started our own lives and families, but we all still believe that it is of utmost importance that our family is healed.

We live in different parts of the US and are willing to fly to our parent's place to get counseling. If we can only get a week or two off, given the nature of the problem, would it be enough to start us off and then do individual counseling?

By anon143936 — On Jan 18, 2011

I hated "Christian" counseling with my family. Not everyone in the family felt the same way about religion, and the therapist basically quoted scripture at us if we disagreed with anything our parents said. Total waste of time and turned me off religion even further. They didn't listen to anyone who couldn't match their statement to a biblical quote.

By closerfan12 — On Jul 24, 2010

@naturesgurl3 -- There are tons of family counseling techniques, just like there are tons of personal therapy techniques.

One pretty common one is to have the family bring in photo albums to go through with the counselor, who then considers the verbal and emotional feedback that each family member gives when looking at the pictures.

Another common technique is reframing, where the therapist tries to offer a different perspective on situations that have occurred in the family.

Finally, most family counselors will have the family work on communication, and will try to teach them effective techniques for communicating with each other.

By naturesgurl3 — On Jul 24, 2010

What are some of the different types of family counseling techniques?

I am considering going with my family to a counselor, but want to know what to expect before we go.

By rallenwriter — On Jul 24, 2010

Sometimes it can be good to find a family counselor who shares the same religious beliefs as your family.

For instance, if you are Christian you seek out Christian family counseling, etc.

This can be helpful because everybody is working from the same page in terms of values and morals, which can make the counseling more effective.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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